Friday, April 28, 2006

Oh the bookseller's life is a hard one

Over at the The Bedside Crow, the independent-bookseller blogger has a review of Andrew Laties's book Rebel Bookseller.

This review sets out succinctly some of the problems facing small booksellers these days, and it is a thoroughly entertaining read. But it is often the case, of course, that it is highly entertaining to read about someone else's pain and difficulty. It is when one is experiencing pain and difficulty oneself that it becomes harder to laugh. Or even smile.

Meanwhile, Michael Cader, in yesterday's Publishers Lunch newsletter, continued to pour scorn on the behaviour of the retail side of the UK book trade.

The 'UK market continues to sow its own destruction', he says, quoting by way of an example the Telegraph interview with James Heneage, founder of Ottakar's. Cader adds:
Prominent publishers at a London Book Fair panel insisted they don't extra discount to the Tescos of the world. Heneage says they do, and that has been the undoing of his once-successful and fast-growing chain of stores. "They can undercut because they get better terms from the publishers." (The latest stroke of genius being considered by UK publishers, which you have may heard about, is to destroy their traditional market even more by raising cover prices on new hardcovers. The hope is that this allows traditional stores to offer better fake discounts to naive consumers, which will somehow keep them from realizing that the books are still cheaper elsewhere.
Ah me. And secondly meanwhile, Clive Keeble slaps my wrist again for failing to mention that all books are (normally) available from your friendly local bookseller, whose children can already be recognised by the absence of shoes. Yes, yes, I am guilty as charged, I have failed to do those things which I ought to have done. (Whether I have also done those things which I ought not to have done is not a matter on which I am prepared to comment.) But I have sent Mrs GOB to our local man to buy my birthday present, Clive. Promise.


Anonymous said...

...and the Bookseller magazine today reports six indies going pop last week alone...I will be posting pictures of my children's feet in the next few days.

Anonymous said...

One of the great excuses from some publishers is that they don't supply Amazon : true, they don't because their distribution is done through a third party. However, it is the publishers who give the distributors massive discounts which they sometimes pass straight on to supermarkets and/or Amazon just to get their foot in the door.

My shoelaces are knotted together, my shirt ripped at the left sleeve when I put in on this morning. The sun is shining, ain't life grand ! Almost cricket weather, no Keeble don't you dare mention Wisden 2006 !

Anonymous said...

The meltdown in U.S. independent bookselling in the 90s revealed a shocking passivity among the customers. They seemed hypnotized by the new low low low prices. Two thirds of U.S. indie bookstores closed in a seven year period. But three years ago, a major consumer research firm, Consumer Reports, said that 80% of Americans preferred independent bookstores to chain bookstores. The number of indie bookstores has stabilized, although there is still some churning that seems mostly attributable to retirements, I think. So -- at least in my opinion -- the question of What Comes Next may turn out to be a slow and steady climb in our numbers -- with most of the openings coming from young people who don't have a vivid memory of the terrible experiences we indie booksellers went through 10 years ago. In Britain right now it appears that many independent booksellers are in danger. Many will surely collapse. But I wish there were some way to encourage these booksellers to close their stores with a will -- like Robert Louis Stevenson's epitaph: "I lay me down with a will". That is: when you close your store, you do so in such a manner as to prepare the foundation for continuing in the profession and ultimately opening a new store. Our older stores so often fail because the decisions we made back when we opened have been exploited by our competitors to our detriment. But when we open new stores, we have the chance to do the very same sort of strategic targeting of our chainstore opponents. (And perhaps we also ensure that we own our buildings...)

Closing down is not the problem. The problem is being so miserable about it that we never re-enter the fray.

Andy Laties

Anonymous said...


I am as positive as it is possible to be in the predicament which most independents find themselves : there is a future so long as terrestial bookshops are prepared to fight to maintain their market.

The future of many terrestial bookshops will likely revolve around POD expresso machines in their shops (hopefully within 5 years), and specialist short print runs now that digital scanning is so readily available.

Sarah Weinman has written a few very accurate observations in Galleycat on Wottakar's and book discounting in the UK.

There's plenty of spin coming from some mega-publishing houses about who is the guilty party in these ludicrous discount wars : since the publishers set the supply terms, both to their own distributors, as well as wholesalers and the bookshops, then it is time for the publishers to take responsibility for their own actions.

UK supermarkets spin the party line that competition doesn't hurt anyone except bad shops : there is a degree of truth in this but when Tesco would be getting nearly twice the normal booktrade discount it is hardly a level playing field. Tesco sold over 50% more books in 2005 compared to 2004 : a figure which would make even Tim Waterstone's eyes water, especially since he considers that the supermarkets are not a danger to Waterstone's sales and profitability.

TW commented to CC
107. Tim Waterstone said that the supermarkets were a threat to WH Smith but in his view not to Waterstone’s. Tim Waterstone said that in the six years from 1998 the large chain booksellers had increased their share of the market from 38 to 44 per cent.

When a merchant adventurer is fronting an alleged £280million bid for a company and comes out with this drivel there is no wonder that *all* terrestial bookshops are thought to be over-egging the pudding (mess).

Sun still shining, now where did I put that cricket bat ?

Anonymous said...


As to the Print-on-demand/coffee-house: this was what the guy who ultimately published my book (Sander Hicks, founder of Vox Pop: was trying to raise funds for, when I discovered his business plan on the web, in February of 2004. Except that he combined the POD/coffeeshop idea with the concept that the activity of the patrons of the coffee-shop would be to collectively write the books that the place would then publish. Citizen journalism, focusing on issues of local importance that were being ignored by the mainstream media.

I convinced him to actually stock books by other publishers as well, and to run a full performance program, and I helped him find technology to have the P-O-D stuff happening in house.

His bookstore/coffee-shop/publishing company in Brooklyn, now one and a half years old, has attracted some attention. Here's the current version of the business plan that's online. He's still trying to raise money to open additional locations.

The Instabook machine costs about $800 per month to rent, although you can buy one outright for $30,000 or so. It's very cool: it can spit out a paperback book in 4 minutes. So, either the shop/mini-publishing-house can write/edit its own publications, or, customers can be invited to simply buy the service of having their own electronic files printed out as paperback books. The machine does nice color-jackets. The output looks like an ordinary trade paperback. You can choose paper quality, trim size,etc.

The problem is that you really need a person to operate the machine who's kind of fanatical about gluing the cover onto the book very neatly. I've seen the staff people at Vox Pop provide a mediocre product sometimes. And I think this is why the machine isn't really paying its way, as a walk-in customer service anyway.

And, for the larger print runs of the books Sander has published (like mine: Rebel Bookseller) it was simply cheaper to go to a conventional printer. (The Instabook churns out a paperback at a materials-cost of under one dollar, but when you factor in the labor to set up the computer file and then physically supervise the production of the book, the cost does go up somewhat. Vox Pop is currently charging customers $7 per book printed approximately. If you want to do a thousand or more copies, it doesn't make sense to use this kind of machine.)

Now -- the other store in the U.S. with one of these machines reported to the New York Times a year ago that it was earning $15,000 per month off of walk-in jobs! From the article, it sounded like there was a fanatical staff person who is devoted to this activity. If he's doing a really competent job, I can see why they'd be busy. It's truly of enormous interest to walk-in patrons to see this machine in the shop, and to see the samples of what they can have created, right there.

However -- the rather surprising (or -- really -- unsurprising) key to Vox Pop finally breaking even was the beer and wine license! They had to wait a year for it to be approved. I was amazed. A bookstore with a beer and wine license can make a lot more money during its evening events than one that merely has a coffeehouse! It turns out that while people drink coffee rather lightly in the evening...the guzzling of profitably-marked-up organic beers and wines only increases as the night goes on.

Now -- there's the key to competing with these corporate jerks! We can use books as loss leaders just like Amazon, as long as we can then get our customers drunk. (Or --in fact--the opposite! Drunken customers would probably pay full price!)

Andy Laties

Anonymous said...

Clive --

It occurred to me overnight that I might have completely misread your reference to Print On Demand in bookshops of the future. Perhaps you referring the to publishers' fantasy that the books they originate/edit/generate will be printed out in bookshops via digital download?

The machine we have in the Vox Pop in Brooklyn--Instabook--has access to over 10,000 public-domain books which customers can request be printed out for them. NO BUSINESS APPROXIMATELY. THERE IS NO DEMAND FROM CUSTOMERS FOR THIS!!!!

So -- I think the publishers are totally wrong that the bookstore of the future will be a sort of kiosk that pumps out books customers request, on the spot. The evidence I have is simply experimental! What having a P-O-D machine in-house seems to demonstrate, instead, is that everyone in the world wants to publish a book and wants the middleman-publishers with their elitism and snobbery to get the hell out of the way.

Anonymous said...


Yes, I am thinking that the bookshop of 2011 will have a POD machine in situ which will print any normal (text) book which is subject to present copyright restriction.

There is precious little interest in popular titles which are public domain, as they can often be sourced secondhand for way less than a new book : also many are archived on the internet for open access.

The two main UK wholesalers, Gardner's and Bertram's, both offer POD for selected recently out of print, and even some titles which are launched purely POD. Current turn-round time is approx 5 working days.

I do not believe that it is pie in the sky to expect that within a few years such facilities will be available with a greatly extended catalogue when the first POD machines enter UK bookshops.

The publishers have been slow to come to terms with latest technology which does not directly affect current production : in many instances I fear that they will wish to by-pass the shops and merely offer e-book digital download to a sophisticated palm reader (an upgraded Sony or similar) either from their own website or Amazon.

Whatever happens, "we" the independent UK bookshops are going to have to fight to retain our customers.

"We" in the UK need to co-ordinate with "You" in the USA, Canada, Australia, in fact anywhere where the independent bookshops are an endangered species. It ain't so in La Belle France, but then that as they say, is all another story.

Vive la Revolution !
Vive la Liberte !

Anonymous said...

Well, I've been wrong repeatedly on the subject of What Comes Next -- so, I'll concede that you may well be correct about an era of POD kiosks that produce copyrighted books for the real-world out-and-about shopping public.

As to your point about international coordination among independent booksellers: certainly there are a variety of places and times when this happens. But not in a way that can, for instance, rival Borders' corporate internationalism! We need to take a tip from the anti-globalization political activists, somehow adapting their technique to appropriate small-business joint action. I wonder how this would emerge, and what it would entail? In my book, I tell the tale of how the American Booksellers Association ran booksellers schools for groups of newly liberated independent booksellers in Eastern Europe, in the early 90s. But coordinating an anti-chainstore fight in the post-industrialized "Western" nations--

Well, it's certainly worthy of thought.


Anonymous said...

OK -- here we go. In my experience the only way to combat the big corporations is to find ways to subvert the system, just as they subvert/twist the system (while always denying this fact). Now -- I used to be able to buy British books from a specialty importer. He was illegally bringing paperbacks into the U.S. in the 80s. For instance, I could get The Very Hungry Caterpillar from him in paperback: the book isn't available to the trade in paper in the U.S. Well -- some of the books on his list were simply British titles that weren't in print in the U.S., but some were simply cheaper in the U.K. edition. However: this was at a time when the pound was weak relative to the dollar.

During that period I also regularly visited Canada and bought books that were supposedly banned for import into the U.S. based on their copyright. And -- bringing these books for the UK/Canada copyright world into my store in Chicago made our store unique. We carried a healthy selection of British children's books, and, British editions of American children's books, unlike anyone else in Chicago.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot. The pound is stronger than the dollar. One wonders if there's some opportunity to import U.S. books into Britain -- books that are unavailable in the chainstores -- perhaps in editions not authorized in Britain --

I PERSONALLY would NEVER dream of engaging in such FILTHY activity today, as I am a LOT older and MUCH wiser.


Anonymous said...

Wait a minute: we went a lot further than that. My memory is gradually clicking into gear. In 1986 my wife and I made a buying trip to Britain. We dropped $5,000 at Heffer's Children's Bookshop, $5,000 at Children's Book World in London, $5,000 at Pipeline's warehouse (the wholesaler) and about $5,000 with Ramboro, Roy Bloom and a couple of other remainder dealers. THAT'S why people knew our Chicago store as the place for British books -- because early on we really loaded up on all sorts of marvelous things. All those stores gave us 20% discounts, and what with the dollar/pound relationship in the 80s, the British books could be priced quite profitably.

Anonymous said...

On that 1986 buying trip to England, we also befriended Bernard Stone at Turret Bookshop. For years, we were buying Ralph Steadman signed books from him. Whenever a new Steadman (or Michael Foreman, or Satoshi Kitamura) book came out, we'd get 5 or 10 copies from Bernard.

What a lovely man. Marvelous bookseller and publisher.

We had a steady demand for those signed Steadmans. I suppose they're now worth quite a bit!

Anonymous said...


UK indies are increasingly sourcing from US : mostly fiction. I would be doing the same but my sales are mainly non-fiction. However, a negative would be that many UK customers (especially those over 50) want their books in British English (colour, not color etc)

Here in the UK Borders, Waterstone's or Ottakar's would not be the biggest competitor ( that is unless you were an indie in the likes of Chesham and woke up one morning to find that Ottakar's had encamped on your small market town green overnight)

Tesco and Amazon are predatory pricing against *all* UK terrestial shops (including Waterstone's et al). "We" have proof positive that Tesco are getting 65-70% discount with coop promo paid for prime end of aisle. Tesco increased their book sales by 52% between 2004 and 2005.

If "we" had £5 million fighting fund "we" might just be able to make ourselves more than a nuisance.

Below is a link to a recent article about how Tesco subverts planning regulations : too many Tesco stores are also being increased in store space : due to the fact that Tesco have 30% plus of *all* food sales in the UK and there are monopoly consequences, this additional space is almost exclusively being used for non-food items i.e. books, clothing etc.,,1764218,00.html

There's an internet action group

However when we examine the "land bank" which Tesco holds, and the corporate lawyers who they will roll out then most campaigns have little effect on the corporation.

Amazon are IMVHO deliberately price-pointing to take sales from *all* the terrestial shops. Publishers say how easy Amazon are to service, how they pay on time(albeit up to 2 months after sale), how Amazon discounts are not so great when postage costs are taking into account (especially since Amazon offer 5 days delivery whereas most indies can offer 200,000 titles at 24 hr delivery).

Rumour had it that Tesco were for a time, last year, considering making a bid for HMV (Waterstone's): that might have been interesting.

Anonymous said...

Ah. Oy. Umm...

A month ago I was invited to give a talk to a couple dozen small-town businesspeople on the subject of fighting Wal-Mart which is the U.S. equivalent to Tesco, sort of. While most of my peers favor full frontal attack, these days -- in the media, town council, through collaborative competitive action -- I tend to search for the behind-the-back option instead. Since I've spent 15 years now surviving by linking my stores' destinies to those of non-profit organizations for which I was essentially serving as a fundraiser (museums where I had the shop; schools, community centers, hospitals where I ran sales), my instinct is to battle such players as Tesco not by standing firm, but by planning to mutate into an entity that's somehow seen by the public as an essential community service. I'm the good guy because I'm directly funding your favorite non-profit institution. The non-profit beneficiary has to of course be one(s) that dependably generate a stream of traffic.

Thus, when I opened this store at Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, I was creating a bookstore from scratch that is two miles from a Wal-Mart and a Barnes & Noble. We've done roaringly strong sales-per-square-foot. People frequently say: "I've never seen this book at Barnes & Noble." So -- two elements. First: I came along AFTER the big stores, in this location. That's very important. If you have an indie store, and Tesco is suddenly a threat, this is terrible because for several years, your customers go to Tesco thinking of them as the NEW thing and you as the OLD thing. However, if you either then close your store and reopen elsewhere in the same market, or, somehow totally transform your identity in the same location, then your customers will perceive YOU as the NEW thing and Tesco as the OLD thing. Then, Second: people in my store are fully aware that every purchase benefits this museum that they love.

This store is my third store. I was unfortunately poorly advised in setting up my first store, and when I closed (after being surrounded by 6 chain superstores), I was fully, personally liable for all the debt outstanding. It took me years to pay off, using the strong profits from my second store (at Chicago Children's Museum). The SECOND store was properly structured to protect me (corporation without personal liability), and when I walked away from THAT store (an indirect offshoot of Clear Channel Communications attacked me with a Double-Your-Earnings Offer to the museum) -- that time around I abandoned a huge amount of vendor debt cleanly without liability. I've gradually gotten comfortable with shedding my stores like shedding my skin.

DAMN the big corporations for making it so hard to be the owner/operator of a small store. But -- it's definitely still possible to conceive of such a profession as involving a SEQUENCE of small stores, that mutate as the competition mutates. Tesco may kill us, Wal-Mart may kill us -- but -- if we already PLANNED to shed our skins, we can live to fight another day.

Andy's current theory. No doubt abandoned tomorrow.



Anonymous said...

Hello boys!

Would you mind if a mere mortal (not a bookseller at all) joined in the discussion? No? You will, after you’ve read what I have to say. You will.

(Before I go any further, apologies to Andy and to other non-Brits for sticking to UK examples. It should all be clear enough.)

I salute your courage, both of you. It doesn’t matter how often they hit you, you’re not going down. You’ve taken countless rounds of terrible punishment, and still you’re on your feet. But it’s only pride that keeps you vertical, I’m afraid, because all hope has long since gone.

It’s the way of the world. What has happened to the old independent publishers? Where now do you find Jonathan Cape, Victor Gollancz, Collins et al? They’ve all been swallowed up by the black holes of publishing, the huge multinational media conglomerates from whose phenomenal gravitational pull not even light can escape.

And away from the world of books, where are the old grocers and greengrocers (cabbage’s, potato’s, co’s lettuce) and butchers and bakers? Where are the old family farms, like the one on which I was brought up? Or try shopping around for car hire. The old name is often retained (rather like the old publishing names), but they’ve all been bought up by Hertz, Avis, Budget et al.

It’s a crying shame. But hold on a moment. When did you last meet anyone who claimed to prefer giant bookshops and huge supermarkets? If people’s words are anything to go by, the little guys must be coining it. But they’re not. However much we moan about the giants, the truth is that we prefer them. They carry vastly more stock than the pygmies, and they sell it cheaper. Much cheaper. Who really prefers to buy apples at £1.80 a kilo from the brave little greengrocer down the road rather than at £1.10 a kilo from the local Tesco’s? Who really prefers to wait a month to buy from IndieBooks for £15 a book which is available now from Waterstone’s for £10? We should all stop being such bloody hypocrites.

His Grumpiness recently pointed us in the direction of the single most informative article I have ever read on the book trade. Read it together with this from The Spectator, and you might gain some understanding of what the independent booksellers are up against.

For Andy and Clive, read Butch and Sundance. Remember the closing scene? The lovable rogues reckon they can shoot their way out of yet another tight spot. What they don’t know (but we do, because we’ve seen what they haven’t) is that the entire Bolivian army has them surrounded, and they’re about to be shot into very small pieces indeed.

It’s enough to make you weep, but I’ll just have another whisky.

[WARNING TO ALL SENTIMENTAL PEDANTS: I know perfectly well that a small number of independent booksellers survive. Likewise independent publishers, likewise greengrocers (sorry, greengocer’s) etc., etc. Please don’t tell me about them, because I know. Any fool can find an exception and pretend it’s the rule. It doesn’t change reality.]

Anonymous said...

Me again. Sorry, but I screwed up the link to the Spectator article. Try this one instead.

Anonymous said...

Oh ye of little faith!

We did it before, and we'll do it again.

(Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes!)


Anonymous said...

Oh ye of little faith!

We did it before, and we'll do it again.

(Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes!)


Anonymous said...

The last post failed to specify that the "We did it before" I was referring to was the expansion of indie bookselling in the 80s that destroyed that era's chainstores. Obviously the disastrous aftermath in the 90s is what we've been discussing online here. I believe that we can once again expand the number of indies, and thereby cause trouble for the current corporate stores by swamping the market.


Anonymous said...

Hi - Crockatt & Powell is a new independent in central London - ZONE 1 baby...

We fully intend to rock the world AND enter into publishing as soon as humanly possible.

If anyone wants to buy us a POD machine we'll start the revolution right now!

Anonymous said...

With much competition on the internet, many book sellers to compromise their profits. It is a fact that many dropshippers make money from posting charges. But with books, these sellers can't even take that as many people opt for royal mail delivery.


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